Tag Archives: Ethics

In vitro meat and cannibalism

As the regular reader will know, we of Republic of Lagrangia are quite enthusiastic about in vitro meat. For non-regular readers, in-vitro meat is meat cultured outside the body of an animal, mostly in a lab. In order to do this, scientists have to collect stem cells from, for instance, a cow, which can be done though a biopsy. Since this does not require to kill the donor, some people consider in vitro meat as a more ethical alternative for regular meat.

Theoretically there no restriction on what animals can be used as potential donor for stem cells for the production of in vitro meat. Even meat from exotic or endangered species could be produced cheaply in this way. Practical considerations as availability of donor animals, and the demand for certain types of meat, will determine which meat will be produced.

There is no inherent reason why human stem cells cannot be used for the production of in vitro meat. And this worries some people. But why would this be wrong? If eating human is wrong, it’s mostly because we object to the killing of humans. Only, in vitro meat does not require the killing of the stem cell donors. Besides humans can, in contrast to other animals, give informed consent to such donation.

Republic of Lagrangia endorses classical liberalism as defended by John Stuart Mill. And a core idea of Millian liberalism is the so-called harm principle. People should be allowed to do whatever they want unless someone is harmed by such action. Given that people can voluntarily donate some tissue sample, and that no one is killed in the process; there is no way under the harm principle why cultured human meat would be wrong.

Although some people might object to the consumption of cultured human meat, we see no reason to prohibit people from voluntarily donating some of their own tissue for the production of human meat, or prohibiting people from buying such meat.

Could in vitro meat save the whales?

Animal welfare is an important issue for Republic of Langrangia. How we treat our fellow living beings, is the litmus test of our humanity. One important issue is whaling. During the 20th century commercial whalers almost exterminated many whale species. Until in 1986 the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on whaling.

Since then there are two camps: one side is for a permanent ban on whaling, arguing that the population of whales is still too small. The other side argues that some species have recovered enough to re-allow limited whaling. Since cetaceans are intelligent animals, we oppose the killing of these animals.

In-vitro meat is a recent scientific breakthrough, which allows people to produce meat in an animal and environmental friendly way. For this method of meat production there’s no need to kill animals, instead stem cells are taken from the animal through a biopsy. One stem cell can, according to the scientists involved, produce up to 10,000 kg of meat, which is in the order of the size of a medium-sized whale.

For research scientists perform regularly biopsies on living whales, and without killing them. Therefore whalers of the future shouldn’t have any trouble with obtaining whale stem cells for the production of in-vitro whale meat.

This approach would solve many issues: first, the IWC can prohibit the killing of whales for ever. Secondly, whalers do not lose their jobs, since they are still needed to collect tissue samples from whales. And consumers can buy whale meat with the knowledge that no whale has been killed and hence that whales will not be hunted to extinction again.

 

Embryo space colonization

Republic of Lagrangia endorses the colonization of our own Solar System, and of the Lagrange points of the Sun-Earth system in particular, before any attempt is to be made at colonizing other stellar system. Despite decades of scientific research, currently no feasible methods for interstellar travel do  exist. Besides the lack of means for interstellar space travel, our Solar System contains huge quantities of natural resources, which can be used by humanity.

Because there is no technology available for achieving fast interstellar space travel, proponents of interstellar space colonization have proposed several alternatives. The three most important ones are: generation ships, sleeper ships and embryo space colonization. In this post we will discuss the latter option.

The rationale behind embryo space colonization is simple: interstellar travel takes much more time than the average life span of a human being, but (human) embryos can be stored frozen for an infinite amount of time. This concept faces several technical difficulties, but we want to limit ourselves here to the sense of embryo space colonization.

An ESC program  would be an expensive enterprise, and especially if tax money is involved, such a project is in need of a good justification. What are possible arguments in favour of Embryo Space Colonization?

Arguments for the colonization of our own Solar System include, among others: the mining and exporting of extraterrestrial resources for terrestrial consumption, to create enough room for a growing world population, or the establishment of better societies for political dissatisfied terrestrials. None of these arguments applies to embryo space colonization.

Provided that an ESC mission can be completed successfully, the export of resources to Earth is almost out of question, for the same reasons that have led to the very idea of ESC: long travel times. (Paul Krugman has written an essay in defense of extraterrestrial trade, however we are still sceptical about it.) And how embryo space colonization can solve overpopulation on Earth, is everyone’s guess.

As far as we can see, the primary, if not only, reason for ESC is to ensure the continued existence of the human species. However, as we have argued in an earlier post the fact that at some point in the (distant) future our species might become extinct, is not something we should worry about. In contrast, we should care about the well-being of the currently existing population, which includes the possible evacuation of humans to space colonies in case of a global catastrophe.

However, the supporters of Scott Adams’s theory that the continued existence of the human species is required for the reconstruction of God, could argue in favour of embryo space colonization. In this view there’s reason for the survival of our species, which is independent of our particular interests. Though we might wonder whether we have any duty to help with the reconstruction of God.

Another argument which could be raised by proponents of embryo space colonization, is that this project would stimulate scientific research in several fields. The subsequent spin-offs could be used for the benefit of the current population. Well, the second part of this reasoning, is on itself enough justification of investing in scientific research, even without the prospect of embryo space colonization.

Euthanasia and capital punishment

The participation of medical professionals in both euthanasia and capital punishment is controversial. Lethal injection is a common procedure in both practices, but it requires trained skills to perform it properly. Ideally, either physicians or anaesthetists should carry out the injections. However, traditional medical ethics (the Hippocratic Oath) prevents medical practitioners from administering people lethal substances.

British humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling argued for the introduction of thanatologists: medical professionals specialized in human euthanasia. Though Grayling does not point out a specific method of euthanasia, it’s reasonable to assume that he is thinking about either some kind of lethal injections or some pill (“Pil van Drion” in Dutch). However, they are other possible methods for euthanasia.

Canadian-American philosopher James Park argues for the abolition of the death penalty around world, and to replace it with imprisonment for life. However, Park agrees with Peter Moskos that:

the sadism inherent in long-term imprisonment, especially solitary confinement, should give pause to all who have the slightest bit of human empathy. Is anything worse than being entombed alive? (Moskos p. 50, 2011).

Imprisonment, life sentences in particular, have been described by many as a kind of torture. For those criminals sentences to temporary prison sentences, Moskos has proposed to offer the condemned a choice between either a several years in prison or to be flogged instead (with subsequent release). But Moskos has to accept that some criminals (including murderers, serial rapists, child molesters and terrorists) are so dangerous that they have to be kept away from society, for ever.

However, if we accept that imprisonment is a kind of torture, than life-imprisonment becomes a serious moral problem. This argument is used in favour of the death penalty, since some supporters of the death penalty see it as a more humane alternative for life-imprisonment. (Conversely, some opponents of the death penalty are using this to describe the death penalty as too soft.)

In order to solve this moral dilemma, James Park has proposed to offer those condemned to life without parole the option of voluntary execution. In his proposal, the prisoner will select the date of his or her execution (at least a year into the future). During the time up to the execution the prisoner can reverse his or her decision. Further the prisoner who desires to be executed, has to make twelve requests for it to be sent to trusted person outside the prison system. Park also proposes several safe-guards to ensure that the decision to be executed is made voluntarily by the prisoners (i.e. without pressure from the authorities).

Additionally Park argues for giving prisoners the option to donate their organs after their (voluntary) execution, which could save the lives of up to seven persons. This requirement severely restricts the number of execution methods which can be used. Although Park mentions brain death as an execution method, he does not say how to induce brain death in people. But there is an execution method which is both humane and leaves the organs suitable for donation.

This method is inert gas asphyxiation. As explained on Wikipedia:

Inert gas asphyxiation is a form of asphyxiation which results from respiration of inert gas in the absence of oxygen rather than atmospheric air (a mixture of oxygen and the inert nitrogen). The painful experience of suffocation is not caused by lack of oxygen, but because carbon dioxide builds up in the bloodstream, instead of being exhaled as under normal circumstances. With inert gas asphyxiation, carbon dioxide is exhaled normally, and no such pain experience occurs.

Therefore inert gas asphyxiation is a relatively humane way to cause death. This method works also quickly, unconsciousness within fifteen seconds and death within a minute. As method for euthanasia, it has the additional benefit of causing a state of euphoria in the person dying in such manner. What way of dying is better than dying in euphoria?

However, this aspect is reason for some supporters to oppose this method for executions. But since this method only requires a bottle of nitrogen, a tube and a mask, inert gas asphyxiation does not depend on the use of medical skills. This fact makes it suitable for use by Grayling’s thanatologists. With a simple and fast method for euthanasia, thanatologists can focus on counselling their patients and their loved-ones.

References

Moskos, Peter 2011. In defense of flogging. Basic Books, New York.

How to kill a human being, part 5. BBC Horizon. 2008.

Free will and punishment

On several occasions we have published posts about criminal law on this blog. In general our position is that only acts which cause harm on non-consenting others should be prohibited, and should be punishable by law. What constitutes harm is subject to debate. However in this post we want to discuss another topic: whether the existence or non-existence of a free will is relevant in matters of criminal law.

Some authors have argued that if humans do not posses a free will, they cannot be held responsible for their actions and therefore society has no right to punish them. Some people have used the reverse reasoning to defend the existence of a free will: if people have to be held accountable for their actions, they should posses a free will; therefore a free will must exist. This latter argument is a fallacy, the so-called moralistic fallacy or the idea that the existence of A can be established from the moral desirability of A.

The most important argument raised against the existence of a free will is determinism. This is the ontological position that the order of events in the universe has been predetermined and consequently cannot be changed. There are many different types of determinism, but currently the most important one is the determinism of Laplace or Laplacian determinism. French scientist Laplace deduced from Newtonian physics that the universe should be deterministic at the end of the 18th century.

Central to Newtonian physics is the concept of force: a particle on which no forces are acting will either remain in rest or move in a straight line at a constant speed. In order to accelerate or decelerate, or to change its direction, you need to apply a force on it. The change in velocity and direction of the particle, is dependent on the magnitude and direction of the force acting on the particle. Laplace made the conclusion that if you would know the location of all particles in the universe and all forces acting on them at a given moment in time, and you know all laws of physics, you would be able to calculate the configuration of particles and forces at any other point in time.

Laplace’s determinism is based on the idea of a causal chain: cause and effect. Though Newtonian physics has been replaced by relativistic physics, determinism was still strongly established. After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less deterministic than Newton’s theory. Even though many, if not most, physicists believe that quantum mechanics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, there are still many scientists who support deterministic versions of quantum theory.

Even if we, for the sake of the argument, assume that quantum mechanics is probabilistic and that random quantum fluctuations are capable of steering the human mind; the existence of a free will is still not proven. After all, we have no influence on the occurrence of these fluctuations and consequently we do not control their effects. Suppose that the human brain depends on a single quantum event: the spin of a particular hydrogen atom somewhere in our nerve system. The spin is either “up” or “down”, each with equal probability. If the spin is “up” the brain will choose action A, but if the spin is “down” it will choose action B. Since the spin of a hydrogen cannot be controlled by the brain, we cannot strictly speak of “a free will”.

We can conclude that a strong case can be made against the existence of a free will. So the question is now whether the non-existence of a free will matters in case of moral issues such as crime and punishment. I will argue it does not matter at all. Let we consider the following analogy: a game of pool. If a ball lies on a pool table, while no forces are acting on it, the ball will remain where it is. If a player pushes another ball with his cue stick. the second ball will follow a trajectory which is determined by the initial force (from the player) and friction. However when the second ball collides with the first one, the trajectory of the ball will be changed and also the first ball will move. But if the payer had not pushed the second ball, the first ball would have remained in rest.

Determinism is often misunderstood as that outcomes cannot be changed. But in fact, at least in Laplacian determinism, determinism only says that if you know the input, you also know the output: if you know that x+y=z, once you know both x and y, you automatically know z. However if don’t x, y or both, you cannot know z.

We can model the human mind as a function f of y and y: f(x,y)=z. Here are x and y what we can call external variables, and z is the internal state of the human mind. Now for every pair of x and y, there is one value of z; which makes this model a deterministic model of the mind. By changing x and/or y, we can control the state of the mind.

Even we do not have a free will, we can still suffer. Regardless of the (non)-existence of a free will, the reduction or elimination of harm is a good thing to do. By prohibiting harmful action and imposing penalties on such actions, we might reduce harm. How can this work?

First, punishment might act as a deterrent: the imposing of penalties might act as external variable which changes the state of mind z such that the person affected will not commit a crime. Even if the deterrence function of penalties only reduces the amount of crimes committed, it would be a good result. Secondly, punishment might change the way the criminal thinks: either the experience of punishment is such an unpleasant one, that he does not want to experience it again, or as result of punishment the criminal’s “mind function” is transformed from f(x,y) into g(x,y). Also in this case it would a good result, if crime is only reduced by some amount. Thirdly, punishment might remove a criminal from society (either by imprisonment or death), so he cannot commit any further crime.

None of these functions of punishment do require the existence of a free will. In fact the contrary is true, to some degree. In order for these function to work there should be some determinacy in the relation between punishments and criminal behaviour.

On Secular morality

Introduction

The purpose of Republic of Lagrangia is the establishment of a secular, liberal and humanist republic. In this post we will discuss the topic of secular morality. We will argue that all meaningful ethical theories are necessarily secular. However, we will start by distinguishing secularism from atheism. Subsequently we will show that non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism. Then we will defend the harm principle as the core of secular ethics.

Secularism versus atheism

Some people (deliberately) confuse secularism with atheism. However, this two terms refer to two totally different concepts. Atheism is the ontological position that god or gods do not exists. Secularism, however, is the political position that politics and religion should be separated, or in other words: the state should be neutral in religious matters. This means that the state should not promote religion or non-religion; whatever one chooses to believe or not, is only his concern.

Not all secularists are atheists, and not all atheists are secularists. Many secularists are not atheists, but they are for instance agnostics, deists or pantheists. This three particular positions are (fundamentally) different from atheism. But most agnostics, deists and pantheists are secularists.

Why is secularism important? Secularism is important because different people has different beliefs, which cannot often be proved. It’s almost impossible to prove either the existence or non-existence of god(s). Since one’s personal believes does not affect other people, or at least they don’t need to, it would be better if we keep religious matters private.

What is morality?

Although theists, and creationists, often talk loudly about morality, they have often no clue what they actually mean with morality. There is a strong impression that for theists morality only serves as a last sanctuary for an increasingly collapsing god of the gaps.

The primary question one should ask in moral philosophy is: what is the purpose of morality? Most theists just presume the necessity of morality, and when they are asked the primary question, they either evade this subject or they claim that the need for morality is “obvious”. One should ask why the need for morality is obvious.

Zoologists have discovered “moral” behaviour in multiple species of social animals, and not only in humans. Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is the one of the foremost researchers in this field. This raises the question why social animals do subscribe to a notion of moral behaviour? If we ask ordinary people what they think what morality is about, they will often explain morality in terms of altruism or caring about others. This justifies us to understand morality as altruism.

There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the emerge of altruistic behaviour in social animals. Animals who help each other, think about a group of wolves or lions hunting together, have a greater chance of survival. Since all evidence points in the direction that the sense for morality is determined genetically, it follows that (the need for) morality is simply the product of evolution. In fact we might conclude that only evolution is able to give us a proper explanation for the whole phenomenon of morality.

After all, why should a deity actually care about morality? Theists are unable answer this question, and often they claim because of god’s love. But we should consider that love can also be explained by evolution, since our capacity to love enhances our chance of survival (think about the love of mothers for their children). However, god is supposed to be unevolved, so how can he be able to love?

So we can conclude that morality is the set of behavioural attitudes which brings us to help/care about others, which increases the chances for survival of our species.

Why non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism?

The Euthyphro problem as formulated by A. C. Grayling:

Is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? (Grayling p. 105, 2013).

Grayling argues that if the first clause is true than anything whatever god might decide to be good, is therefore good. This include murder, rape among others. Certain acts are only bad or good because of the arbitrary whims of a deity. Therefore non-secular ethics is nihilistic, since good and bad have no objective, independent meaning.

If the second is clause is true, we need to develop a secular theory of ethics.

What kind of morality should we have?

Although evolution is able to explain why people have a sense of morality, it fails to tell us what specific moral rules we ought to have. The primary objective evolution impose on all living beings is their will to survive, and in particular on animals.

Although most humans are born with a sense of morality, many people have different set of moral values. According to Canadian-American moral philosopher David Gauthier argues that moral values are inherently subjective. Because different people have different preferences, there will be conflicts of interest among these people.

It seems from this point of view it will impossible to establish any kind of objective morality. In a literal sense this would be true, but we can say: why not construct a set of rules which enables us to pursue as much of our interests as possible? In fact such rule is possible: the harm principle. Although John Stuart Mill has introduced this moral rule for slightly different reasons, it’s quite useful for organising a society with many conflicting interest.

According to the harm principle individuals should be allowed to do what ever they want as long as no other person is harmed by such act. Therefore you can live your life by your own values, provided that these value do not harm others. And the main task for the government is to minimize the amount of harm in society.

References

Grayling, A. C. 2013. The GOD Argument. Bloomsbury, London.

Incest and Bestiality are NOT victimless crimes

Introduction

Republic of Lagrangia endorses the version of classical liberalism as have been described in On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.

The most important concept in this work is the so-called harm principle. What is this principle? The harm principle basically states that individual liberty should only be limited in order to prevent harming of others. In other words: a certain behaviour can only be prohibited by the government is such behaviour is harmful to others. This also means that the law should not make acts of self harm illegal. If some one chooses to harm himself without harming others, then we should not consider such person as a criminal.

Related to the harm principle is the concept of victimless crimes. These are crimes which do not have a victim. However, what is a victim? Some crimes such as murder, rape and theft, have clearly identifiable victims. But there are crimes in which the victims are less clear. An example is environmental pollution, which does harm person by destroying our environment. Only in case of environmental pollution it is often not clear who exactly has been harmed. Some wingnuts claim for these reason environmental pollution is a victimless crime, of course this is pure bullshit.

However, the harm principle does not state that some one has to be harmed intentionally by some act. If it is known that a certain act is harmful for some one, then this would be sufficient reason for prohibiting such act (or at least to regulate such behaviour).

Some people would argue that incest between mutually consenting adults is not a victimless crime. And people such as David Brink, suggest that bestiality is a victimless crime. In both cases, people argue that no one is harmed by such acts. In this post I will explain why neither incest nor bestiality is a victimless crime.

Incest

With incest we mean here: sexual intercourse between two consenting adults who are close relatives of each other. This definition excludes sexual relations between adults and minors and rape of a relative. These latter two act consist two separate crimes, since they are generally not considered as victimless.

One might argue that if two (or more) person consent to have sexual intercourse with each other, then there is no harm. In most cases, this would indeed be true. However, if two closely related persons have sex we have to take into account the children who might result from this act. And in case of two close relative having intercourse we have to deal with the risks of inbreeding.

It is a widely known fact that children of parent who are close relatives, have a greater change of having genetic disorders. Many governments are persuading pregnant women not to smoke or drink alcohol, because of the potential harm for their unborn children. Following this logic, we should also discourage close relatives to have sex with each other, in order to prevent harm to the children who might be conceived during an incestuous affair.

Inbreeding becomes even more serious when the children of closely related parents would have in their turn children with their relatives. For each generation that a family practices incest the incidence of genetic disorders will increase. And these disorders include very serious illnesses. There is incest certainly not a victimless crime.

Bestiality

Bestiality is when a human has sexual intercourse with a non-human animal. This behaviour is harmful in several ways.

First, we have to consider the harm done to the animal. According to Mill’s teacher Jeremy Bentham animals should have moral relevance because they can suffer, just as humans. Therefore animals are also covered by the harm principle. Although harming an animal might be justified in certain extraordinary circumstances, we absolute do not consider trying satisfying some (perverse) sexual urges as one of those.

Whether an animal will suffer of sexual intercourse with a human, depends on the physiology of the particular animal. However, even if an animal is not physically injured, an animal might suffer psychological damage from a unconsensual act.

A second reason why bestiality should be illegal is the problem of diseases which can be transferred from one species to another. By having intercourse with animal a human being might be infected by some disease. If such person subsequently has intercourse with a human, (s)he might infect other people. A new, potentially epidemic, infectious disease has been born. Or the zoosexual might infect other animals.

Scientists believe that HIV has been transmitted from apes to humans at some point in last century. We do not want just another of such disease. Therefore bestiality is not a victimless crime.

See also:

Space colonization and vegetarianism

On the Ethics of Colonizing Mars and Space

Both the colonization of Mars and Space colonization has ethical concerns. In this post we will discuss some of the more important issues.

Possible Life on Mars

Similarly, nobody really mourns for those who do not exist on Mars, feeling sorry for potential such beings that they cannot enjoy life.

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been. The Harm of Coming into Existence. 2006.

One of the arguments against colonizing Mars is concern for possible Martian lifeforms. Some people argue that introducing terrestrial life to the Red planet, would be bad for native Martian life. Most scientists believe that, if Martian life (still) exists, it will most likely consist of bacteria or similar organisms.

The question we should ask ourselves is whether such Martian bacteria has any moral standing. According to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, beings have moral standing if they can suffer. Bentham’s student John Stuart Mill, has introduced another important principle in moral philosophy, the harm principle. According to this principle our liberty is limited by the liberty of others; we may do what we wish as long as we do not harm other beings.

If we combine Bentham’s axiom of suffering with Mill’s harm principle, we can conclude the following: we may not beings who have the ability to suffer. As far as we know, bacteria cannot suffer, therefore they have, according to Bentham, no moral standing. For this reason we cannot conclude that bringing terrestrial lifeforms to Mars is immoral, because native Martian life might became extinct.

A related argument is that if terrestrial lifeforms are introduced to Mars, the original lifeforms cannot be distinguished from the introduced ones. This would interfere with scientific research to life on Mars. Although this might be regrettable, we might ask ourselves whether this would outweigh the benefits which colonizing Mars would offer to humanity.

A third concerned with the possibility of Martian bacteria is the health risk for colonists. This fear is understandable, however it is quite unlikely. Infectious diseases are generally limited to certain organisms. So is HIV dangerous for cats, apes and humans, whilst crocodiles are immune for it. Because parasites are adapted to a certain host organism, they cannot infect other organisms. (This also implies that all stories about fighting alien invaders with biological warfare are implausible.)

Of course, there is one caveat to this reasoning. Martian microbes might be poisonous to us.

Environmental impact on Earth

Another concern regarding space colonization, is the environmental impact of rockets. This is a serious problem, the pollution due to launching rockets into space do damage to our atmosphere. This pollution has all kinds of harmful effects to people, not the least to public health. The harm principle dictates that we should reduce the impact of rockets.

The precise environmental impact of a rocket depends on its type, especially on the kind of fuel used. Many rockets use poisonous fuels such as hydrazine, a hydrogen-nitrogen compound. By burning hydrazine both water (H2O) and nitrogen n-oxides  are produced, especially the latter is problematic since they are one of the causes of acid rain.

Hydrogen rockets, which produce water vapour as exhaust, are the most environment-friendly type of chemical rocket. Although there some technical difficulties with managing hydrogen rockets, the space shuttle program has shown that these can be overcome. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, in fact one of the strongest, however this gas also stays in the atmosphere for a short time.

On the other hand, space colonization will also solve some environmental problems. For instance, asteroid mining would eliminate the need for mining on Earth. And mining is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation.

The costs of space colonization

Space-flight is expensive and so is space colonization. Therefore some people argue that given the large amount of poverty in the world, it is wrong to spend billions of dollars to a space colonization programs. However, these people are unaware that space colonization might be a solution for the problem of poverty.

The Solar System contains a lot of resources, so much that John Lewis has calculated that an equal distribution of these resources, would give every human on Earth a 100 billion dollars, which is much more than Bill Gates’ net wealth. Of course, this is somewhat extreme and this calculation is based on current prices of resources. When asteroid mining will increase the supply of this resources, their prices will fall. However, this price fall is not bad, since materials will become cheaper and so will the general price level. In this manner poor people can do more with their money.

Further, space colonization might increase employment, both in Space and on Earth, by creating all kinds of jobs. Even if the direct employment as result of space colonization will be limited, there is also the possible increase of indirect employment. Employees in the space industry will demand all kind of goods and services, which will create many more jobs etcetera.

Conclusion

Space colonization faces several difficult ethical question, however, it is also a potential solution for some ethical problems such as environmental damage and poverty.